The case of Garner has met with a strikingly different response from conservatives, as Tim Lee of Vox recently observed. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, a man known for channeling the populist id of older white conservatives, somberly expressed his horror at Garner’s death on Wednesday night. More pointedly, Tim Carney, a leading light of the conservative intelligentsia and a columnist for the Washington Examiner, pointed to Garner’s death of an illustration of the dangers of an unaccountable, excessively strong government.
Having grown up in Brooklyn in the 1980s and lived through the explosion of violence that accompanied the crack epidemic, I came to deeply appreciate the dangerous and difficult work done by the NYPD. Like most conservatives, my gut-level sympathies are with police officers who find themselves in situations that can quickly spiral out of control. And I believe that the most important job of the police is to protect innocent people from harm, a job the NYPD has generally done well. But there is no question that something has gone badly wrong with policing in many of our cities. When high-crime neighborhoods grow to distrust local law enforcement, local law enforcement finds it more difficult to do its job. Anger and anxiety build, and sometimes it explodes.
Of course, conservative fears about law enforcement run amok are different from those invoked by liberals. Conservatives, particularly libertarian-minded conservatives, are far more likely to point to the expansion of government as a driver of police abuses, a claim that at least some liberals find risible, or even offensive. Moreover, they are far less likely to chalk up police brutality to straightforward racism. Fear of the police, a fact of life for young black and brown men—particularly those living in neighborhoods plagued by violent crime, ironically enough—is largely unknown on the American right, which is disproportionately white and either suburban or rural.